Tech-Talks Bregenz | Lp Article | Human Centric Lighting | Apr 22, 2018

Tech-Talks BREGENZ - Fred Maxik, Founder & CTO, Lighting Science Group

LED light in combination with advanced controls, and here especially IoT capabilities, opened several new options in lighting. In this context, the term Human Centric Lighting, and more recently, the term Biologically Active Light have become trendy. Fred Maxik, founder and CTO of the Lighting Science Group, who held the keynote speech at LpS 2017, recognized these opportunities in a very early stage when most other manufacturers were still struggling with the challenges of the new technology. In the interview he explains what his perception of light is and its importance in our lives. He gives insights into his philosophy and ideas on which criteria artificial lighting has to fulfill in order to live up to the promising terms „Human Centric Lighting“ and „Biologically Active Light“.

LED professional: Thank you for joining us for this interview. We attended your Keynote yesterday and we were very impressed with the talk, especially the fantastic pictures. One of the main points of your keynote was the relationship between light and humans. For me, one aspect that stuck out was how you explained that light is as it is - and humans, plants and animals all developed in a way where the light was right for them. Could you explain that again for our readers?

Fred Maxik: Certainly. There is, I think, at this point, a general consensus that we are and have evolved as diurnal species. We’re used to the light cycle of the sunlight and the evening cycle of the stars and moon. And we did not just uniquely develop our bodies’ processes. They were adopted – in fact – infused as different bacteria, as different cells, as different things combined to create life as we see it today on the planet. And all these already had some photosensitivity, some diurnal period associated with them. When you take a look at single cell algae today, we see a diurnal period. When we look at what composes the human body there are a lot of the same ingredients. And the sun and daylight and all light have an influence, therefore, on our biological processes. So that is where we establish that this is the evolutionary path we took. This is why we are using photosensitivity in many ways – not just our circadian rhythms – but even the way we digest our food. The way bugs grow in our stomach. The way we see and the way we act. We’ve even had some seasonal effects that we’ve seen in various cultures that were seen up to a hundred years ago before electric light was introduced to their environments. We’ve created eternal summer now with our lighting systems and we all live in this eternal summer.

LED professional: So can we say that natural light is the standard and artificial light should be as close as possible to natural light?

Fred Maxik: Maybe. I think there are two components to light that we need to be conscious of. We cannot deliver to a human being inside a building the dose of light that the sun delivers. We are not capable of the intensity of it, nor should we be. However, we can look to and create a portion of what is natural. But first we must understand what portion of what is natural has the biological effects we’re interested in. And what portion of what is natural does not? And therefore we can reengineer a spectrum of light with that knowledge to mimic what we want to replicate in natural light.

LED professional: From biology, especially from entomology, we know that you can trigger a reaction easier by hyper optimal conditions than you could with the natural part. Do you think we should try to achieve this or do you think it might be stressful for people and we should stay within the limits given to us by nature?


Fred Maxik: My personal belief is that I think it should be considered. It should be studied and it should be understood as best we can. And then with that knowledge and that data we can make judgments as to what we should and shouldn’t do. In the very first instance, I think we should try to do no harm.

The other thing I would say, and we talk about this quite frequently, is natural light versus artificial light. I don’t know that a photon knows if the light is coming from the sun or a light bulb. I have a problem with natural and artificial. Light is light. How it is produced can be discussed. I would probably alter that and say that natural light is the spectrum of light and the intensity of light we evolve from. We evolve from the sun and the stars and then there is “other” light. The other light is introduced by man initiated actions. And I would add that that spectrum is not the same and in no cases is it yet the same.

LED professional: Yesterday there were a lot of lectures dealing with human centric lighting. We have been talking about this topic and its influence on human biology for at least fifteen years now. But everyone who talked about it in their lecture acted as if it were completely new. Don’t we have enough information right now to start with human centric lighting? I ask because if you looked at Jan Denneman’s timeline, yesterday, human centric lighting starts far beyond the year 2020. Don’t we have the technology or we don’t have the knowledge to focus on it right now?

Fred Maxik: Maybe we don’t have a receptive audience. I think that we have enough knowledge today to begin implementing some aspects of human centric – or lighting that affects humans – particularly in the areas of sleep. I think that’s the most compelling argument we have today. We have good laboratory studies by first class universities that show elements of our light; particularly that peak at around 475 – 485 nanometers, can disturb a healthful sleep. So I think that we can begin today on developing light sources that are less interruptive to what we consider our natural way to go to sleep, our natural hormone secretions at night, our natural REM sleep cycles and not delaying the onset of all those. I think that’s stable, sound science today. There is sound science around how light can wake us up in the morning, how we can take that alerting dose. How we can work forward towards mitigating some of the present activities like seasonal affective disorder. You’re right: those things have been around for a while.

Now we understand the pathways from the ganglion receptors in our eyes that communicate into the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain and I think we understand how the circadian clock works. There’s solid ground there. And I don’t know if we have a receptive audience in the consumer base yet. And that’s going to be a challenge. I actually agree with you. It may be several more years before the audience is educated enough to understand what we’re talking about. But as an industry we can discuss it and promote it.

Secondly, though, as we look at the light centricity of humans and other things, there are going to be other things we continue to discover. There is some work being done on light and chemotherapy. There haven’t been any studies yet but it’s very promising. But it will probably take years, maybe decades, to sort out. There’s light and aging and brain health. Particularly dementia and Alzheimer’s as we look at how the brain clears various waste matter. This is very, very promising work going forward. As an industry, we should look at what this means - we call it the human centricity of light. That’s a wonderful opportunity for the industry and it’s a wonderful opportunity to do some real good with it – and there are a dozen categories like this. 


LED professional: There are a few companies already using this knowledge. For example, the Lighting Science Group is working on the interaction of light and humans. Could you give us a short introduction to the Lighting Science Group?

Fred Maxik: Sure. I established Lighting Science Group eighteen years ago. It was established only to look into solid-state light. We had no other interest in other sources. It wasn’t only about energy – initially it was about how we take light and how we might manipulate that spectrum of light to create different effects. And as we learned more about it – about fourteen years ago – we started working with NASA. We worked with the astronaut corps and began to understand what the challenges were in space. They started talking to us about how every 90 minutes having a space station circling the Earth and all the lighting cues for the astronauts are thrown off. So very quickly, they start losing team coherence because their clocks are essentially free running - out of sync. So we started to develop lighting systems for them to test which were beginning to be installed a decade later on the space stations.

We developed technologies from there. We made test beds that we sent to universities around the world to work on this lighting type science that we aptly named ourselves after. And then we started getting into other areas like the mosquito – one of the deadliest animals on the planet. What do we know about the spectrum that would let us create lights that are less attractive to them? What would let us create lights that are more attractive to them so that we can move them into trap areas? What can we do about other animals?

We continued down that path for a long time and now we’re looking at health and sanitation. We’re looking at how we clean our air with light and how we clean our water with light. How we develop a built-in environment that’s in a healthful place – not only to work, but also to live. Now we’ve split the company into two parts: One concentrating on general end products – doing some millions of dollars a month in general lighting products, and the other looking on science. Trying to figure out ‘What are the next steps?’ ‘What are the products that flow from there?’ and ‘What is the continued research that we want to do to advance into those areas?’

LED professional: It would be nice to know more about light and humans, but it seems there is not enough money for research. How do you finance your scientific work?

Fred Maxik: Today we are privately financed. We do work with a private Equity Company in New York that funds our efforts. They have been a wonderful partner for us. We started with them almost eight years ago and they have financed our activities. They are equally curious about where this will go to and are firm believers that we are building value by discovering new pathways and have allowed us a lot of latitude in how we continue to move this forward. But we also partner with universities to create extensibility in the studies we do. We partner with medical schools and overseas universities as well. We try to make ourselves as extensible as possible. We’ve brought in interns from all over the world to help us discover things in-house as well. I think we’re frugal in our testing but I think we’ve got enough latitude to be able to put enough stakes in the ground so that we can have a study here that might take five to ten years to mature and we have a study that might mature in six months. It’s a good mix.

LED professional: How big is Lighting Science Group and how many people deal with science and research and how many deal with the products?

Fred Maxik: There are about twelve to fifteen that work directly on the R&D side and of those, probably about three or four are university professors who come in and consult with us for periods of time. In terms of the company itself: The company is not very large. It’s probably about $70 to $75 million a year right now – so fairly small for a lighting company but I think we’re on the right track and if we are, we’ll see a very nice organic growth shortly.

LED professional: If we look at your products on the Internet, the main product seems to be the replacement bulb with a very specific spectrum. Do you have other products as well?

Fred Maxik: We do everything from highly dynamic 16-channel color mixing test devices for universities all the way to a single fixed spectrum. So we have what I think is the full gambit of what is possible. We’re working on hyper spectral sources that will be controllable in a number of ways. We’re also looking at potentially hyper spectral sources even in a bulb that will be adjustable. I think those are soon to come.


LED professional: If someone decides to buy a product that should have certain spectrum effects, do you get feedback from those people about how it works?

Fred Maxik: In a lot of cases we do. We get a lot of direct feedback and for the most part it’s very positive. People from around the world actually reach out to us to ask where they can buy products. We get calls from all around the world and the feedback is generally very positive. And just to repeat a little anecdote I used in my speech yesterday; there’s a value the lighting industry leaves on the table because we don’t understand the customer we’re serving yet. In North America and the United States – the sleeping aid industry is larger than the entire lighting industry. If we can displace a small fraction of that industry using warm light instead of sleeping aids, we could double the size of the light industry. So when you think about what lighting can be, instead of having the “others” come in and try to take our business where our profitability is. Instead of sharing our data with the CISCO’s of the world, and whoever else might want to market our data – what if we decided, instead, to take a little piece of their business? I think there is the opportunity like never before for the industry to grow in a very unique way.

LED professional: That is an interesting comparison between the lighting and sleeping aid industries. Normally, if you buy a sleeping aid – there is a package leaflet that tells you exactly how to use it. Do you also have instructions about how to use light?

Fred Maxik: Yes! We are beginning to develop this idea – and it doesn’t need to be prescriptive – but in the sense of the studies we’ve done, we know that if we give the wrong light 90 minutes before sleep, we delay the onset of sleep, then we delay the onset of REM sleep, then we delay the onset of melatonin secretion. We’ve seen this in studies. So we have the knowledge today to start building those leaflets.

LED professional: I talked to Jan Dennemann earlier and we agreed that the consumer needs to be educated. If the end-user is educated and wants the better light then it would put pressure on the companies that install the lights to provide the higher quality light. But how can we do this?

Fred Maxik: Actually, I do have an idea. I think there is a natural first customer. The natural first customer for all of this is hospitality. Hospitality pays 500 Euros for curtains and 100 Euros for a pillow; a thousand Euros for a bed and then tells its customers that they can offer them a better night’s sleep. But then they pay 1 Euro for the light bulb they put next to the bed! If we can educate the hospitality sector and show them that if they paid 15 Euros for the light bulb, they would give their customer a 15% better sleep, and tell them why they’re doing it – then everybody who stays in the hotel, comes away thinking about it. So because the hospitality sector is in the business of selling sleep, I think they would help us. There’s a natural synergy there. So that would probably be my first target.

LED professional: If we go back to the technology and what your company is doing for lamps or systems: How do you shape this spectrum? Do you do your own material research to find the right phosphors? Or do you work with partners?

Fred Maxik: It’s a combination. We do our own material research. We do our own material research with converters. We do our own material research with filters. We don’t do research on dye – we source our dye. And we mix all those technologies together. We have a very senior chemist in the group that was involved in LEDs very early on in the industry. We have two physicists, and we spend a lot of time optically modeling our sources and what we’re getting and how we’re getting it. We don’t make our own phosphors today. If we want them, we have them made or we source them ultimately for production. 

But we do experiment both in the quantum dot space or in the filter space to see how precise we can get to, what we think is our ideal spectrum output.

LED professional: Another question about technology: If you need light in your bedroom, for example, I think it could be a luminaire or a lamp with a fixed spectrum. But if you need one for your office, I think it has to be dynamic because you stay in the office the whole day and as natural light changes during the day, I think the indoor light should change as well. So, do you also work in the controls field or do you adopt controls that are already known or control systems that are already on the market?

Fred Maxik: Again the answer is both. But I’m a bit cynical about standard controls and standard smart-type applications. I’m actually spending my time creating and looking at machine learning systems. Whereas the fixture or the fitting or the light source understands where it is in the world and how it is being utilized without being told what to do. So – maybe a slight dithering of the spectrum through the day, light cloud cover would do. But not necessarily big transitions for sunrise and sunsets. I think those are more for show than for real effect. So – I don’t know. I think the jury’s still out on whether we can use a fixed spectrum in the office. I think that some compromised spectrum that has enough enriched blue, enough of a high CRI and can be reduced to a fairly low glare level that mimics a natural light without having to worry about having to shift it to anything else other than that. I think the slight dithering would reduce the eyestrains and the other things associated with that. But I think that jury’s out. I think that we don’t understand that, yet.

LED professional: That partially answers my next question: If you use standard systems who makes sure that the programs in these systems are right? You can have the best light source, you can have the best controls, but if it’s programmed wrong it won’t do its job.

Fred Maxik: This is where, again I think that we, as an industry, have an amazing ability to gather data that will enhance our value or we decide to give it away to someone else. It is known in building systems – it is known in the architectural space - these patterns of utilization of space can be used to create – and analytics can be applied to that – to understand how space is used and whether it’s being used effectively or whether it’s being used happily. And I think, as we start gathering this data and mixing it with the lighting recipes we are applying, we, as a machine become much smarter as to what we do and how we learn and how our lights learn. I think there may be some very simple metrics that we can apply today into a lighting system or a lighting fixture, that allows to understand how the people are utilizing that light and that space. And I think that’s an area worthy of lots of exploration in the future. That’s again – a high value path. We’re looking at office space now – open office space – shared desks. There will be ways of identifying user patterns. There will be ways of identifying utilization patterns that I think lighting is uniquely positioned to explore. And that’s an area that I think is well worth for the lighting industry to pursue.

LED professional: At the controls and driver level, it’s not just the spectrum itself, you said you could imagine that people are more alert when they are relaxed but we still have an issue with many drivers today and that is flicker. There are big discussions going on about what is acceptable and what isn’t. What is your opinion?

Fred Maxik: There are many people looking at that today. We have folks on staff that are looking at it and exploring it, and also people on some of the committees that are investigating. This is where it goes back to what’s natural. Natural light doesn’t flicker. It shifts, but it doesn’t flicker. I think the closer we can mimic that in a light source, the more interesting it becomes and the less obtrusive it becomes to human health. So I’m a firm believer that we should minimize it but I’m not on top of the specification associated with doing that today. I’m more interested in how we morph color without having sophisticated controls.

LED professional: Back to the biological effects. There was a discussion yesterday about the blue ray. Professor Haim talked about the damage that shifting the day/night cycle – which can actually be done using blue light – might do, or does. So what do you think about this? In my opinion the SCHEER report only looks at the damage that blue light can do to the eyes. But what do you think about the influence of blue or short wavelength light on the whole body.

Fred Maxik: High energy – short wavelength light can certainly harm things. We know by studying UV how much harm short wavelength light can do. So there’s no reason, until we hit a certain threshold that we shouldn’t expect there’s the potential for short wavelength damage. But we go outside and sit in the sun and get a monstrously high dose of blue light and we’ve done that for years. In fact, since we’ve been here. So I think that we can overstate the case. And I’m concerned that we push it now. I think that blue light at the wrong time of day is more of a concern, like a late night dose of blue light. Our visual system is very quick to respond but has a very short latency. It responds in seconds but there is no latency to that effect residually is seen. This blue system – these ganglion receptors that we have – having much longer latency of their effect – and once they are triggered and once they start signaling, the latency of their effect can go on for one or two hours, maybe even three hours. And that’s what we should be cautious about. It’s not that it’s doing physical harm to the eye, although it can if you stare at it for long enough, but it’s throwing off these other physiological systems. To me, that’s where the danger lies. It’s not just something we pass and we see lights going on. But once the ganglion receptors are triggered, the latency of that interrupts our sleep. I think there will be studies in the future that will show that what we’ve done to ourselves is at least partially responsible for causing hormonal cancers and a contributor to early onset dementia. And these are the areas that, I think, it’s going to take ten and twenty year studies to get to. But I think we will link these together in the next ten to twenty years.

LED professional: That is a very interesting and thought-provoking statement to close on! Thank you very much for your time.

Fred Maxik: Thank you.